Chess king vs prodigy in long-awaited showdown

Game of thrones: Anand and Carlsen compete for the title of World Chess Champion © Getty Images

The World Chess Championship should be a titanic battle between an old master and his brilliant young foe. But the first three rounds have ended in draws. Is this an unsatisfying result?

Imagine walking into the most difficult and important exam in the world. You have spent your whole life training for the occasion, and the past year desperately cramming your brain with every question that could possibly come up. The test could last an hour, or it could last eight. And pass or fail, you will leave the room knowing that eleven identical ordeals await.

That is the situation that India’s Vishy Anand and Norway’s Magnus Carlsen find themselves in this week, as they begin their colossal struggle for the title of Chess World Champion. Since it was first introduced in 1886, this prestigious prize has been held undisputed by only 15 top grandmasters.

Anand is the game’s current king. To steal his throne, his young opponent will have to prove himself superior over the course of twelve games in three weeks – each of which will take every ounce of the players’ psychological, mental and even physical strength.

This match, pitting a wise and wily veteran against a brilliant prodigy, has been described as the most dramatic chess event in 20 years. And chess has no shortage of followers: around 600 million people from all corners of the globe play every month, while the game is ubiquitous in popular culture as a metaphor for scheming intelligence.

Yet outside India, where the match is being held and where Anand is a hugely popular figure, this great showdown has received little attention. And the results of the first four rounds give a hint as to one reason for this: draw, draw, draw and – yesterday yet again – draw.

Of course, there are other factors that make chess a poor spectator sport. There is minimal physical action involved and appreciating the mental struggle requires a lot of specialist knowledge.

But games repeatedly ending in draws can be a turn-off, even for potential fans. And as powerful computers allow players to erase flaws from their game plan, the issue is getting worse: around 60% of top level games now end with honours even.

Drawing blanks

Boring, frustrating, unsatisfying: those are the words that come to many peoples’ minds when they witness a draw. The joy of any game comes in outdoing your opponent: at its best, sport is a winner-takes-all affair which must end in either euphoria or desolation.

If you’re in it for the adrenaline, some fans reply, then draws will never be for you. But you could be missing out on some of the greatest moments sport has to offer: tense, hard-fought, tactical encounters in which both sides walk a constant tightrope between victory and defeat. There’s nothing dishonourable about sharing the spoils.

You Decide

  1. What makes a good spectator sport? Which is the best?
  2. ‘Chess is war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent's mind.’ Is chess champion Bobby Fischer’s bloodthirsty attitude to competition a necessary attribute for sporting greats?

Activities

  1. Chess is controversially recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee. Write your own definition of ‘sport’ and compare your answer with the class.
  2. Read up on the rules and tactics of chess and try playing a game with a friend.

Some People Say...

“I’d rather go down fighting than accept a boring draw.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not smart enough for chess.
Nonsense. For a start, the idea that chess is the ultimate sign of intelligence is a total myth. You have to be able to calculate a little and recognise patterns, but at the highest level a lot of it is a matter of memory, focus and relentless preparation. Besides, plenty of brilliant people have been useless at chess.
Well it’s boring either way.
It’s not for everyone, sure. But it gets more interesting as you understand it better, so if you’re interested it’s worth investing some time in. And there is also some evidence to show that chess training can help your academic performance – so it’s not just a waste of time!

Word Watch

Grandmasters
The most prestigious title for a chess player, gained by winning top tournaments and getting a high ranking. Just below this level are international masters followed by masters.
Even physical
The amount of mental effort involved in a top-level chess match can take a real physical toll, to the extent that players often lose significant weight. Exhaustion can sometimes decide the result. An intensive fitness course has been part of Anand’s training for the World Chess Championship.
Prodigy
Someone who shows enormous talent at a very young age. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the French poet Arthur Rimbaud are famous examples. Chess is famous for its prodigies, including Bobby Fischer, the most famous player of all time. Carlsen was a grandmaster at the age of 13 and is now challenging for the world title at 22. Anand is 43.
Computers
No human has been able to beat the best computers for many years now: whereas a human can only hold a few positions in their head, chess engines can calculate millions at once. But it’s unlikely that chess will ever be ‘solved’ like draughts has been, or at least not any time soon: the number of possible positions on a chessboard is more than double the number of water molecules in the ocean!